COUNTY IAGenWeb Project
A Century of Service
Iowa City, Iowa
dedicted to all the operators who worked in an Iowa City telephone
exchange. Printed for the Telephone Pioneers of America
Iowa City Club
Written by Dorothy A. Dayton
April 30, 1984
Iowa City, Iowa
Click on images for enlarged view
The information below was transcribed from the Telephone Pioneers of America publication, A Century of Service.
Brief Sketch of Telephone Exchange History in Iowa City
first telephone exchange in Iowa City was opened on March 7, 1881, and
served about thirty-five phones at the start. The exchange was
located at 110 1/2 East Washington Street, just above the telegraph
office; today the Hayek law offices are in that location. Frank
Moffitt, manager of the telegraph office, was also manager of the
The exchange layout and outside plant had
been built by D.H. Ogden of Cedar Rapids. Ogden, together with
his partner, G. B. Engle, had been granted the Bell license for part of
Iowa; Ogden had started the Cedar Rapids telephone exchange in 1880.
He and his partner had formed the Hawkeye Telephone Company which
exited during the construction and opening of the Iowa City exchange,
and for a time afterward; in 1882 Hawkeye Telephone was reorganized as
Iowa Telephone and Telegraph. Other name changes followed until
Iowa Telephone Company emerged in 1896. The only other name change
was to Northwestern Bell Telephone Company, late in 1920. The last
name change marked the formal incorporation of a single Bell company to
serve the five state area which formerly had been served by three
Bell-licensed companies, of which Iowa Telephone was one.
However, the three companies ha shared the same president since
1907, had operated substantially as one organization, and had been
known as the Northwestern Group of Bell Telephone Companies.
DeWolf was the first telephone operator in Iowa City; all that is known
of her is her name. She is remembered only because Frank
Patterson - the night operator from 1883 to 1885 - identified her in
speaking with Carl B. Cone in 1942. Paterson also gave the name
of Ada Carter as the operator on days from 1883 to 1885. By 1891
the exchange is listed in the city directory with the address of 126 1/2
East Washington Street; in the 1893 city directory the address is listed
as 210 1/2 East Washington Street; the exchange remained at that
location until 1911.
Within twenty years from the opening of the
first telephone exchange, a second - and independent - exchange was
established. In 1900 the Johnson County Telephone Company opened
an exchange at 222 - probably actually 222 1/2 East Washington Street;
today Barbara's Bake Shoppe and the apartments above the shop are in
that location. Edwin Sidwell was an early manager, and Roy Wertz
was the manager in 1909. In the city directory of that year, the
Johnson County Telephone Company advertised "1500 free connections in
Iowa City and vicinity."
Since the two companies did not
interconnect, businesses had to have service from both companies.
This made for a lot of confusion; however, some firms - Iowa
Brewing, for one - were fortunate enough to have the same phone number
at both companies. Other firms - not so fortunate - would
advertise giving both Bell phone and Johnson County telephone numbers.
November 15, 1909, the Iowa City Daily Press reported that the Iowa
Telephone Company had purchased the Johnson County Telephone Company.
After a postal card ballot of the Johnson County Telephone
patrons disclosed that 88% favored having only one telephone system in
Iowa City, the Iowa Telephone Company began to consolidate the
independent system into the Bell company. An official of Iowa
Telephone noted in December of 1909 that it would be no easy task to
swing two offices into one.
Sometime in 1911 the merged local
exchange moved into the narrow three story Stillwell building at 227
East Washington Street. Today the downtown Goodwill Store is in
For over twenty years, the telephone exchange
remained at 227 East Washington Street; then in 1929 construction was
completed on the first floor of a new, company-owned exchange building
at 302 South Linn Street. The toll division - AT&T- then
moved to the new location; this was followed by the business office
move, and the completion of the second and third floors to house the
traffic department and equipment for the new dial system. On July
31, 1932, as Iowa City converted to dial service, the operators moved
to the new building.
The operators remained in this exchange
building until the Iowa City traffic department closed March 31, 1981.
The last telephone operator in Iowa City was Jeris Kaalberg; she
was the only operator at the board on that final day. The
building had become known to many employees as "the graham cracker"
because of the siding put on when the fourth and fifth floors were
added. The Linn Street structure remains the telephone exchange
building and still houses all the equipment needed to serve the local
area. However, due to the centralization of most telephone company
departments to other cities and also to the installation of modern
space-saving central office equipment, the top three floors and much of
the first floor - are no longer in use.
Click on images for enlarged view
Hello Central(Author: Carl B. Cone, Palimpsest, March 1943)
March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell spoke the first understandable
sentence over the telephone. He said, "Mr. Watson, come here; I
want you." When the Emperor of Brazil inspected the instrument at
the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia later in the year, he was as
surprised as he was impressed. All he could say was, "My God! It
talks!" The London Times described the telephone as the "latest
American humbug" but, in case the invention should prove successful,
the Times established a basis for revising its judgment by claiming
that the inventor was a "a Scotchman, though a naturalized American."
Americans were convinced that the telephone was not a humbug, but
considered it not much more than an ingenious toy. In only a few
years, however, the telephone became a necessity in our social and
Perhaps the first apparatus purporting to
transmit the human voice was brought to Iowa City from the Philadelphia
Exposition by John Hensel. He paid one dollar for nothing more
than two cans connected by a string. It was nearly three years later
that S. D. Pryce and W. J. Schell, who operated a hardware store in
Iowa City, ordered three telephones, one of them for Father Emonds of
St. Mary's Church. During this interval a few telephones had been
installed at Marshalltown, Burlington, Dubuque, Des Moines and Keokuk.
the number of telephones increased, the desirability of a central
exchange office in Iowa City became so apparent that in the fall of
1880 Frank Moffitt, manager of the local telegraph office, undertook to
organize one. In an advertisement in the Iowa City Daily
Republican on October 6, 1880, he listed several advantages the
telephone had to offer. A person could use it to call the doctor
or to order groceries, and it's potentialities in the world of business
were unlimited. Merchants who had once installed a telephone
"would not part with it for four times the cash." All these
benefits are obvious today, but the need for a central exchange is not
so clear without an understanding of the operation of the early
telephone in the pre-switchboard days.
If Mrs. Smith wanted to
talk with Mrs. Jones, she could do so only if there was a direct wire
connection between the two homes. An entire neighborhood might be
connected on the same wire, with leads dropping off into various homes.
If there were several parties on this line, one subscriber called
another by giving the appropriate ring. This arrangement was
similar to a later country line except that the latter had the
advantage of a central exchange. One neighborhood could not talk
with another part of town unless a direct connection existed between
them. This system was so crude that it was much better to set up
a central exchange into which the wires from all the telephones would
lead. Then the operator could establish a connection between one
phone and any other on the switchboard.
Moffitt was so
successful in enlisting subscribers for the proposed exchange that
construction was begun by (a predecessor company to) the Iowa Telephone
Company during the winter of 1880-1881. The city council gave
permission to use the streets for telephone poles by an ordinance
passed on December 17, 1880, which stipulated the conditions that had
to be met. Prior to this time, the wires were strung from barns,
trees, or any other support that was convenient. The newspapers
printed frequent notices of the progress of the work, exhorting the
crew to "rush up" the poles and "the more the merrier." In the
meantime, the Republican was compiling a directory, and it advised all
who desired phones to notify the company at once. This directory
was a card listing the names and numbers of subscribers. As
additional telephone were installed, the Republican promised to give
notice to its readers to add the new names and numbers to their
directories. On February 19, 1881, there were fifty-four names on
the list, and more persons were about ready to join.
exchange was formally opened on March 7th, with "about" thirty-five
phones in working order and others to be attached soon. The
newspaper reported that the exchange was a "grand success." D.H.
Ogden of (a predecessor company to) the Iowa Telephone Company told the
Republican that everything was in good shape and business was thriving.
By the end of the first month the central office reported an
average of about a thousand calls daily among the seventy-three phones
in use. Obviously those who proudly possessed telephones were
making diligent use of them.
No copies of the first directory
seem to have been preserved, and the complete list of subscribers was
never published in the Republican, but on April 1st these names were
printed to be added to those already on the card:
|68 - Star Grocery, W. J. Welch|
51 - Saunders, S. L., store
69 - Hughes, W., residence
70 - Whetstone, J. H., drug store
66 - Close & Co., oil mill
62 - Hughes, W., music store
73 - Hinman, A. C., store
|63 - Iowa City Glass Co.|
65- O'Hanlon & Son, grocers
67 - Rockey, Dr. A. E., residence
64 - Shrader, W. E., drugs
71 - Seydel, John, residence
72- Thornberry, J.H., grocer
|On April 29th the paper cautioned its readers not to forget to add these names to their card:|
75 - Noel, J.B., confectionery
31 - Packing House
76 - Carson, T.C.
use of the telephone in those early days was typically American, for it
was an instrument for both pleasure and business. To give
concerts over the phone was a favorite indoor pastime until the novelty
wore off. Charles Litzenburger, leader of the Light Guard Band,
was a favorite performer. When he played in Nixon and Brainerd's
furniture store and funeral parlor for the listeners assembled in the
Republican office, "every note was distinct and perfect and the harmony
was never broken." In the estimation of the editor, it was one of the
finest entertainments he had ever heard, well worth a substantial
admission charge. The headwaiter at the Palace Hotel, Mark Fisher,
was an "inimitable genius" on the harmonica. The Republican
thought it only fair to point out for the enlightenment of persons who
liked to have Mr. Fisher play for them over the telephone, that "he is
a first-class savings bank for spare quarters." In short, these
concerts were call the rage.
The telephone provided other
conveniences. The Republican thought marriages by telephone would
become very popular, for the preacher could not kiss the bride.
Fathers at their business establishments could comfort their
crying children with assurances that they would bring home peanuts and
popcorn. The Republican was confident that news gathering would be
facilitated and would also be devoid of risk because the inquiring
reporter "can interview a pugnacious individual with perfect safety."
This might work both ways, however, for irate readers could call
the office, express their opinions about the newspaper, and then hang
up. The ease with which a radio can be shut off has also been
considered a prime virtue.
Merchants were quick to grasp the
advantages which the telephone contributed to the conduct of their
business. Only three days after the exchanged had opened, an
advertisement announced that persons could telephone their orders to
Tanner's mill from Fink's store or the express office. Bradley's
grocery store had five telephone orders on the morning of March 11th.
John Seydel reported that he simply couldn't do without a
telephone - one man was busy taking orders, "and the way groceries were
called for was a caution. " Nixon and Brainerd, undertakers, advertised
that if their services were required at night, call Number 17. The Star
Grocery solicited oorders by telephone, while A. C. Atwater, who had just
received fifty cases of Milwaukee beer, assured thirsty patrons that
"orders by telephone (will be) promptly filled. "
beneficial as the early telephones might have seemed, they were still
crude. The exchange was located at 110 East Washington Street,
occupying the floor above the telegraph office. Frank Moffitt was
the local manager for both the telephone and telegraph companies.
Luella DeWolf was the first operator. Frank Patterson was
the night operator and Ada Carter the day operator between 1883 - 1885.
The operators also took care of collections and other business
connected with the office. A lineman for the employ of other
company installed phones and had charge of general maintenance.
of the greatest difficulties in the days before insulated wires and
lead cables, was the prevalence of "crosses" in the lines. There
being no cables, each phone was connected with the central exchange by
direct wires. As the wires converged on the exchange they were
strung close together. In a heavy wind the wires would blow
against one another and become tangled, the conversations would then be
jumbled, subscribers would be unable to get the proper connections and
general ill-feeling resulted. The lineman would have to climb the
pole and "shake out the crosses" before order could be restored and
To the early users of the telephone, however,
the crossed wires, imperfect connections and faulty reception were not
serious drawbacks. The crude telephone was as miraculous to them as the
radio set with its headphones and batteries was to people in the early
1920s. If it seemed fantastic that one person could talk with another a
mile away merely by speaking into a mouthpiece, it was even more like a
tale from the Arbian Nights when one could carry on a conversation with
a person in Tiffin, Oxford, or even Cedar Rapids twenty-five miles
distant. Yet this impossibility was a reality before the year
1881 had half run its course. Only five years after the first
telephone was a proven success, the residents of Iowa City were
accustomed to talk with their neighbors in town or their friends in
nearby communities without leaving their homes.
THE ENGLERT THEATRE FIRE
(from the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Saturday, February 13, 1926)
The following article appeared at the top center of the front page:
"Hello Girls" Real Heroes
bit of outstanding heroism that was a result of the big fire this
morning was the action of the thirty girls employed in the local
exchange of the Northwestern Bell Telephone company. With the
Englert building less than forty-three feet to the west an inferno of
flame, the entire day force stayed calmly at their switchboards and
answered incoming calls.
The banner headline read:
FIRE DESTROYS ENGLERT
Entire Down Town Section of City Threatened When Flames Gut Noted Iowa City Theater.
Theater Block Smouldering Mass of Ruins Following Disastrous Fire This
Morning; Raging Flames Menace Whole Business Block Before Brought Under
Control Just Before Noon
Click on photo for enlarged viewAbove
are the thirty-one Iowa City Telephone Operators who stayed on duty at
the switchboard during the Englert Theatre fire in February of 1926
left to right: Back row: Anna Dvorsky, Wilma Trundy, Elsie Grundbacher,
Loretta Miller, Gwen Wiese, Helen Clark, Loretta Bradley, Gladys
Fuhrmeister, Claudia Doliesh and Florence Carlson; Middle row: Anne
McComas, Anna Miller, Marie Young, Leona Sullivan, Clara Shulthise,
__________, Alma Soucek, Blanche Lukosky, Freda Hills, Etta Shulthise,
and Ethel Hills; Front row: Lela Campbell, Estella Todd, Florence Cone,
Irma Bouquot, Pearl Conklin, Hattie Goody - Chief Operator, Ferndell
Sims, Laura Peet Myra Groh, and Sylvia Boone.
IT'S "LAST CALL" FOR PHONE OPERATORS(Author: Nan Seelman, Iowa City Press Citizen, April 10, 1981)
The era of the long distance operator has ended in Iowa City, lending its ear to the electronic age.
last Northwestern Bell telephone operator in Iowa City made her exit
March 31, closing the doors after several decades of service.
Iowa City operators either resigned, changed jobs, or retired over a
period of several months, beginning January 11 when a new system,
another miracle of computer technology, was installed, said Kathy
DePhillips, regional manager for operator services.
Eight of the
former operators will be honored at a retirement party Saturday at the
West Branch Country Club. Past and present Northwestern Bell
Telephone employees are expected to attend.
The reason for the
operators' departure is a chapter in the oft-heard story of "machines
replacing people." In this case the machine is called ESS -
electronic switching system, DePhillips said.
The ESS allows
telephone customers to place their long distance calls more quickly,
with minimal operator assistance, she said. Therefore, fewer
operators are needed.
With the new system, operators are stationed in only three cities in Iowa - Davenport, Des Moines and Waterloo.
Brown of Iowa City, one of the eight operators to retire, said she was
sorry to lose her job of 34 years. "It was a job I liked.
It's not often you find something you like to do, when you look
forward to going to work every morning," she said. There have
been a lot of changes since Brown first began working for the telephone
company. Most of these changes have been in the equipment, she
said. "The headsets changed several times. We started out
with heavy black ones, and then went to some lighter weight headsets.
They then went to an ear mold device." Brown said that
although they knew almost three years ago that their jobs would be
terminated, it didn't make it any less of a disappointment. "It's
something everyone knew was coming, but it always seemed like it would
be in the future; it wouldn't happen to me. Then all of a sudden
there it is, and you're done." She said, at age 54, she's not yet
ready to retire from the work force, but she decided to take some time
off before looking for another job.
Virginia Madsen of Iowa
City, a former group manager of operator services, said that everybody
she has talked to is "so surprised" to hear there are no longer any
operators in Iowa City. "They thought telephone operators would
go on forever," she said. The duties of the operators "stayed
pretty much the same" in the 26 years she worked for the telephone
company, Madsen said. She will also be honored at the retirement
party Saturday (though she retired over a month ago). "With the
electronic age coming, it has made it so equipment can do twice as much
as it could before," Madsen said. "They just didn't need as many
In addition to Brown and Madsen, the other
employees to be honored at the retirement party include Eleanor
Dickinson, Betty DIckson, June Ensminger, Dorothy Kahler, Frances
Spratte and Elaine Welsh.
following information regarding Iowa City telephone operators is a
result of additional research I performed after transcribing the Telephone Pioneer's Century of Service
pamphlet above. Having come from a Bell Telephone family (my
father, mother, husband and I all worked there) I was inspired to
take the "Century of Service" tribute a step farther.
Page Updated 7 Oct 16